OAKLAND -- It seems almost ridiculous now, but early in his career LeBron James was worried that a bad back might derail his goal of becoming one of the best players in the history of the NBA.
Less than four years into his professional career, James found himself playing with chronic soreness in his lower back. He couldn’t shake the pain.
“I hurt my back, and my back was really sore and I couldn’t understand why it was bothering me,” James said.
Convinced that his sore back would eventually become a significant problem, James adopted an elaborate routine of stretching exercises to increase his flexibility. His back stopped hurting but James’ stretching routines — administered daily by a personal trainer — never stopped.
“I started stretching three times a day, started doing Pilates and stuff like that to maximize what I can do, because I love to play the game and I don’t want to be sitting out because of my back hurting or something bothering me. It really helps,” James said.
James credits flexibility, stretching and Pilates for his legendary durability. He calls it a proactive approach to avoiding injuries. James has only missed 33 games during his 10-year career.
Avoiding injuries has allowed James to accumulate career statistics at a rapid pace. On Wednesday against Golden State, he entered the game 18 points shy of becoming the youngest player in the history of the league to reach 20,000 career points. He was also two assists shy of 5,000 for his career.
James, who frequently says he’s not a scorer, said Wednesday that he is more proud of his assist total than the points. He was set to become just the 12th player in NBA history to record 20,000 points, 5,000 assists and 5,000 rebounds in a career. James had 21 points and six assists in the first half. He entered the 20,000 club with 2:45 left in the first half.
“Obviously he’s a freak of nature, but I see what he does to take care of his body as well to make sure that he’s durable,” Heat guard Dwyane Wade said.
To fans, James almost seems indestructible. During games, he will go down with an apparent injury, grimace, hop around, and then — always — walk off the pain and finish the game. James is quick to point out, however, that he is not Superman.
“I do hurt,” James said. “Just say that. I do hurt. I’m not immune to being hurt.”
But there is a difference between being hurt and being injured. James says that difference is his flexibility.
“I just try to do everything to be proactive with a lot of stuff, so I don’t have to wait until I get injured and then start doing stuff to try to get me back,” James said. “I try to do everything before, so it doesn’t keep me out long.”
James’ extensive daily stretching routines might not be mainstream, but the exercises are well-known throughout the league. James estimates that he spends more than an hour stretching each day.
The sessions are so time-consuming and frequent that he suggested including a scene of himself stretching in one of his recent Samsung commercials. For authenticity, James likes to include snippets of his daily life into the products he endorses. In this particular advertisement, James is lying prone on the Heat’s locker room floor looking at his smartphone while a personal trainer is stretching James’ legs.
While that specific scene in the commercial might have been staged, it’s not fiction. A personal trainer stretches James’ hips, back and legs before every game inside the Heat’s locker room.
“I’ve gradually built on it through the years,” James said. “As you get older, you have to do more, but I’ve been pretty consistent with what I do to keep me out on the floor.”
All that stretching — and not some superhuman ability to avoid injury — is what has made him one of the most durable players in the NBA. Only guards Jason Terry and Andre Miller have played in more games than James since he broke into the league in 2003.
James recently turned 28. Drafted out of high school in 2003, he has averaged 27.6 points per game in the regular season for his career. When he passes Kobe Bryant for youngest to 20,000, he will have beaten Bryant to the milestone by more than a year. Bryant was 29 years and 122 days old when he reached the 20,000-point mark.
“When people are having conversations about the best scorers in the game, my name never comes up in that case, so the fact that I’m close to a milestone is a great thing,” James said.
Youngest to 20,000 points should not be confused with fastest to 20,000 points. Wilt Chamberlain needed only 499 regular-season games to reach 20,0000 points. James, who played his 726th regular-season game on Wednesday, will be the seventh-fastest player in NBA history to 20,000 points based on regular-season games.
“Ultimately, LeBron is not going to be judged on how many points he scores,” teammate Shane Battier said. “If he wanted to lead the league in scoring, then he could lead the league in scoring. That’s not what his game is and that’s not what his legacy will be. He’s going to score a ton of points.”